5 January 2009
Does religion provide an evolutionary advantage?
by Kate Melville
Religious people have more self-control than their less religious counterparts, leading to lower rates of substance abuse, better school achievement, better health behaviors, less depression, and longer lives, says University of Miami professor of Psychology, Michael McCullough.
McCullough's new meta-study, appearing in the journal Psychological Bulletin, posits that self-control is critical for success in life, and religious people have more self-control than do their less religious counterparts. Thus, religious people may be better at pursuing and achieving long-term goals that are important to them.
To arrive at his controversial conclusion, McCullough evaluated eight decades of research that was conducted in diverse samples of people from around the world. He found persuasive evidence from a variety of domains - including neuroscience, economics, psychology and sociology - that religious beliefs and religious behaviors are capable of encouraging people to exercise self-control and to more effectively regulate their emotions and behaviors, so that they can pursue valued goals.
"The importance of self-control and self-regulation for understanding human behavior are well known to social scientists, but the possibility that the links of religiosity to self-control might explain the links of religiosity to health and behavior has not received much explicit attention," said McCullough. "We hope our paper will correct this oversight in the scientific literature."
Some of the more intriguing conclusions that McCullough drew were:
- Religious rituals such as prayer and meditation affect the parts of the human brain that are most important for self-regulation and self-control.
- When people view their goals as "sacred," they put more energy and effort into pursuing those goals, and therefore, are probably more effective at attaining them.
- Religious lifestyles may contribute to self-control by providing people with clear standards for their behavior, by causing people to monitor their own behavior more closely, and by giving people the sense that God is watching their behavior.
- The fact that religious people tend to be higher in self-control helps explain why religious people are less likely to misuse drugs and alcohol and experience problems with crime and delinquency.
"By thinking of religion as a social force that provides people with resources for controlling their impulses [including the impulse for self-preservation, in the case of suicide bombers] in the service of higher goals, religion can motivate people to do just about anything," he concluded.
Source: University of Miami